YORK, England, Nov. 27 (UPI) -- Computer-based treatments for depression have been proffered as an inexpensive and efficient approach to mental health care, but a new study suggests the technology isn't up to snuff.
According to research by scientists at the University of York, computer-assisted cognitive behavioral therapy, or cCBT, was no more helpful than visiting with a primary care physician.
Researchers followed the treatment and health outcomes of 691 depressed patients visiting 83 different physician practices in England. One-third of the patients received normal treatment from a primary care physician. The other two-thirds visited a physician while also participating in online CBT programming.
After four months of treatment, cCBT users showed no significant improvements as compared with depressed patients who received only offline treatment.
"Supported cCBT does not substantially improve depression outcomes compared with usual GP [general practitioner] care alone," researchers wrote in the British Medical Journal. "In this study, neither a commercially available nor free to use computerised CBT intervention was superior to usual GP care."
In analyzing the findings, scientists divided participants into groups based on the severity of symptoms, age, sex and education. None of these differences accounted for the lackluster performance of online therapy.
Researchers acknowledged their study may have failed to identify small improvements offered by online CBT programs, and aren't willing to rule it out as a potentially beneficial method.
"For patients benefits include ease of access and lack of stigma; for health systems it enables wider reach at lower cost than face to face psychological interventions," scientists wrote.
The study's authors say online therapies could prove more effective for those with mild depression symptoms, especially if programming is coupled with offline support. Part of the problem, researchers say, is the lack of human contact and engagement makes it more likely that patients will stop participating before the therapy has a chance to enact change.
Previous studies suggest online communities can be beneficial to stigmatized or marginalized groups, and even lead to increased offline engagement.
But researchers say their latest findings serve as a reminder that the Internet isn't a panacea for mental health problems.
"It's an important, cautionary note that we shouldn't get too carried away with the idea that a computer system can replace doctors and therapists," Christopher Dowrick, a professor of primary medical care at the University of Liverpool, wrote in an editorial accompanying the newly published paper.
"We do still need the human touch or the human interaction, particularly when people are depressed."